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OUR OPINION: Conrad's right to insist on 60 votes

Sixty-plus votes. That's the key to passing health care reform that'll stand the test of time: In the U.S. Senate, shoot for at least 60 or even 70 or more votes. A change this big simply has to have broad support. Otherwise, it'll increase rathe...

Sixty-plus votes.

That's the key to passing health care reform that'll stand the test of time: In the U.S. Senate, shoot for at least 60 or even 70 or more votes.

A change this big simply has to have broad support. Otherwise, it'll increase rather than decrease divisiveness and bitterness, not only in Washington but throughout the U.S.

Luckily, the Senate Finance Committee -- almost alone among the key players in Congress -- has insisted, in the face of tremendous political pressure, that its reform proposal win bipartisan support. That's a great credit to the committee's chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and influential member and Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Thursday showed the vital importance of Baucus and Conrad's commitment to winning 60-plus votes.

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Thursday morning, Conrad's Budget Committee invited testimony from Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is the respected arbiter of federal budget numbers. Analysts often compare it to a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes, a status that puts critics in the position of arguing with the ump.

"Dr. Elmendorf, I am going to really put you on the spot, because we are in the middle of this health care debate -- but it's critically important we get this right," Conrad said.

Will the health care reform proposals that other committees have released "bend the cost curve," Conrad continued -- that is, reduce the runaway inflation now driving up health costs?

"No, Mr. Chairman," Elmendorf replied.

"In the legislation that has been reported, we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount. And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs."

With that, analysts agreed, health-care reform suddenly encountered a huge setback.

Or did it? Only if you accept Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's harrumphing that such budget warnings shouldn't matter. If Elmendorf is so smart, "maybe he should run for Congress," Reid snapped.

But the warnings do matter. They matter tremendously to America's future -- specifically, to our long-term fiscal health.

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And that's true, liberals should agree, even though the warnings are being voiced not only by moderate Democrats such as Conrad and Baucus, but also by many Republicans.

Those critics have a point, in other words, when they warn of the titanic threat of massive federal indebtedness. Their warning is valid and mustn't be ignored.

That's why it's important to reach 60 votes: Because only by doing so can Americans be assured that responsible critics are satisfied with the health reform bill.

Critics who, remember, simply are insisting that the bill be fiscally sound.

"The Left" is right: America needs health reform. But "The Right" is right, too: The reform mustn't break the bank.

Welfare reform passed that Left/Right test in 1996. Widely considered one of the most successful pieces of legislation of the past generation, it passed the Senate with 74 votes.

Health care reformers should strive to do the same.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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